Five years ago, if anyone were to ask me what kind of music I liked, I would have said, “Everything except country.” And a lot of my friends would have said the same thing. To be honest, I don’t remember my exact feelings on country music. I can’t say now whether I thought country music was too pop or if I thought it was too inauthentic or if I simply didn’t enjoy it. But I do know that there was a stigma against country music as it was five years ago among my friends who liked music.
Fast forward to 2015, and I love country music. Now, I’m not a Luke Bryan fan or a Keith Urban fan- when I say “country music”, I’m including everyone from Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe to Drive-By Truckers and Pistol Annies. You could call it “alt-country”, but I’m more inclined to call the genre establishment “country pop” and give my preferred artists the “country” label. But those are just labels, convenient signifiers for description. It’s all country music.
Sturgill Simpson is country music, and he’s my kind of country music. His last album, 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, got Simpson a lot of attention for its references to LSD and other psychotropic drugs, though he really only went psychedelic on one song, “Turtles All the Way Down”. The rest of the songs had references to Simpson hearing voices and smoking weed, but by and large he covers a lot of standard country topics: God, love, sin. It was a great record, but not as trippy or weird as people seemed to think.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is another story entirely. The album essentially functions as a love letter to the singer-songwriter’s son, but that description alone hardly gives you an idea of what to expect. Opener “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” could be the opening number of a Broadway musical, with its theatrical arrangement and soaring verses. But halfway through the song, the Dap-Kings (old-school soul pros) kick it into high gear and give us a taste of the R&B sound that will pepper the entire album, from the rollicking “Keep It Between the Lines” to lead single “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”.
The titles of those two songs give you a hint of the lyrical content on A Sailor’s Guide. Simpson spends a lot of the record spinning poetic advice for his son, advising him at one point to “just stay in school / stay off the drugs” and then at another to “make sure you live a little / before you go to the great unknown in the sky.” But A Sailor’s Guide is more than a list of tips. Closer “Call to Arms” rails against the hypocrisy of the government and the media’s smokescreen coverage, and on “All Around You” Simpson delves into the mystic bonds that he believes tie us together. There’s even a cover of Nirvana: “In Bloom”, which takes on a whole new meaning as a country song. This album is country music, but it’s not just country music. It makes you wish more country artists had bigger aspirations.
Since the release of A Sailor’s Guide, there have been several pieces wondering if Simpson is country music’s savior. This thought assumes, of course, that country music needs saving, as if country music is any different than any other genre; all genres have their establishments, and their independent artists always struggle to break through. Just like pop or rap or even jazz, the popular stuff is often less adventurous and authentic. But there’s still good popular country (Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley), and, every so often, independent artists get their time in the limelight.
Last August, Jason Isbell’s new album Something More Than Free reached No. 1 on the country charts, and Todd Snider declared “the war is over”. He meant that an artist who didn’t use the established system, who didn’t have a single pushed onto the radio disc jockeys, who went around the Music Row machine- an artist proved to the establishment that independent artists can reach the people too. Since then, Chris Stapleton, a long-time Nashville songwriter who finally got a major-label deal for the much-loved Traveller, has spent 20 weeks (20 weeks!) at No. 1 on the charts. In fact, only two other artists in 2016 have unseated Chris Stapleton at the top of the charts: Christian bluegrass group Joey + Rory and- you guessed it- Sturgill Simpson.
So is Sturgill Simpson country music’s savior? Well, if you think saving country music means country becoming more creative and free to try new things (so if you think country should be more like alt-country) then it seems as if Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton already saved country. Country music’s establishment has gone all of 2016 without a No. 1 album. Surely that means something!
Or maybe you’re a cynic and you think Stapleton, Isbell, and Simpson are blips in country music’s long track record of doing the same thing over and over again, and they’ll just keep trending towards pop country and ignoring the lessons of alt-country’s recent popularity. I’m a cynic, so that’s what I think is going to happen. But I also think country music never needed saving. No, country music was always just fine. Just because you had to look on its fringes, that didn’t mean it needed saving. If country music tries to do things resembling the creative freedom of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, then great. If country music decides to keep being mostly dull, then that makes the weirdness, the originality, the scope of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth that much more precious.